Thursday, May 06, 2010

Wisdom, Torchbearer of Justice

Questions About Wisdom; Tests and Touchstones

Wisdom, A Love Affair

By John Taylor; 2010 May 06, Jamal 08, 167 BE

I have always loved wisdom. I think I found out that it was love when I was a teenager and I stumbled across a Reader's Digest article that featured a "wisdom test." It was a multiple choice quiz where you were given about twenty old saws and traditional sayings and had to guess what they meant. Some of these words of wisdom used obscure analogies or obsolete turns of phrase and were difficult for the modern mind, especially the teenage mind, to understand. I had always been plagued by what I now know were headache-less migraines, and I rarely did well on logic puzzles, memory tests or mathematical brain twisters.

However, to my surprise in this wisdom quiz I got a perfect mark.

I gave the test to my younger sister to try and she only grasped the meaning of a couple of the proverbs -- later her behaviour, including broad, early experimentation with men and drugs, seemed to prove the validity of the test.

But to this day I wonder, what would be a good test of wisdom?

Surely it is not enough just to grasp the meaning of an idiomatic saying like, "A stitch in time saves nine." It must be one thing to understand what an expression of wisdom signifies and quite another to actually practice wisdom in your life. Socrates, the wisest man in Ancient Athens, was convinced that wisdom was a quality that only God has, and that what we call wisdom among mortals is a kind of inspiration where God takes the steering wheel.

"I decided that it was not wisdom that enabled [poets] to write their poetry, but a kind of instinct or inspiration, such as you find in seers and prophets who deliver all their sublime messages without knowing in the least what they mean." (Socrates, in "Plato's Apology, sct. 21)

Socrates observed in his own life that the daemon or spirit that came to him at crucial points in his life never actually told him what to do, only what not to do. It only intervened to stop a course of action that he was contemplating. This is wisdom as prudence, a protective quality that prevents danger before it happens.

And what is the most certain danger? In the eyes of Baha'is, it has to be disunity. As the Book of Proverbs puts it,

"It is an honor for a man to keep aloof from strife; But every fool will be quarreling." (20:3, WEB)

But this brings up another question that I have been asking ever since I began this investigation of wisdom. What is the difference between justice and wisdom? I know in my bones that you cannot have one without the other. Who can imagine a wise person being unfair, or an unjust one being wise?

In the 6th leaf of Paradise, Baha'u'llah defines justice as unity, or at least a way to get to unity. In relation to justice, wisdom seems to be a sort of mysterious spirit that inhabits this quest, or follows upon it.

"The light of men is Justice ... The purpose of justice is the appearance of unity among men. The ocean of divine wisdom surgeth within this exalted word, while the books of the world cannot contain its inner significance." (Baha'u'llah, Tablets, 66-67)

Justice, then, is a sort of torch or flashlight that the wise hold in their hands and turn in whatever direction unification lies. The wise direct their steps away from strife with the aid of justice.

Baha'u'llah goes on to imply that if we were to take hold of these two, justice and wisdom as unity, humanity would be relieved of the economic depression and deprivation that presently afflict it -- the poor afflicted physically, the rich spiritually. All the glut, indigence and lack of fairness in wealth distribution would somehow be lifted if only we could take these two cords, justice and wisdom, and tie them together in a secure knot.

I am reminded of the debt and imminent financial collapse that is threatening in Greece right now. Massive tax evasion, debt default and now open protest and strife afflict the land where Socrates lived and taught. Surely there, if anywhere, the torch of justice is not being directed by wise heads. Let us pray that it will be, soon.


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Jimbo writes:

Hi John!

Apparently there is a word in Persian which means both wisdom and understanding, and the Guardian often translated it as wisdom, according to Mr. Adib Taherzadeh, cited in a talk that he gave in Alaska about thirty years ago.

i think that wisdom is a kind of deep spiritual recognition of what is the right (unifying and just and most beneficial to humanity) approach to whatever is facing you.

When I was fifteen, my older sister gave me the book "The Prophet" by Khalil Gibran. I just loved the wisdom in it, and for me that was my first encounter with mystical wisdom. Less than a year later I encountered the Baha'i Faith at a school venue proclamation and fell in love with that too. Wise thoughts and musings are a good foundation for our actions, but don't guarantee that we will not make mistakes.

However, it saves us in the end, and helps us to learn faster through experience, I have found. Discussing what wisdom is is a great thing to explore, at any age.

"The teacher who is indeed wise does not bid you to enter the house of his wisdom but rather leads you to the threshold of your mind."
Kahlil Gibran